Mr. Richards was my sophomore English teacher. He wore bow ties. And occasionally he would launch into a lecture, nearly a sermon, about the importance of being virtuous and how virtue was its own reward. And how sometimes we might have to sacrifice stuff for the greater good. Maybe he had been inspired by Kennedy—that turkey—; I don’t know. But he got on my nerves
Every year in home room, somebody would nominate me to represent the class on the Student Council. I considered student government a complete joke. I declined every time. But this time Richards took me aside into his little office and gave me a lecture on how my fellow students looked up to me and that I should accept the role and the responsibilities of being a leader. I thought the guy was full of shit.
So I started attacking him in my papers. I’d write something like: if anybody thinks this particular character is virtuous and acts unselfishly, then he or she doesn’t know anything about the human race and should on such matters as these keep his or her mouth shut on things beyond his grasp of reality. The he or she was Richards, of course; and I would always go on to back up my argument with intelligent counter evidence.
Things got pretty tense between us. He liked to change the seating assignments. So one week you’d be here and the next there. Whenever I had any kind of choice, I gravitated to the back row or the sides. I hated the front row; that’s where all the kiss ups and brown nosers sat. So there I was sitting in the front row while he was going on about something, and very casually I stretched out my long legs and rested my feet on the edge of his typewriter stand. Then I yawned. Jesus, the look I got. I pretended not to notice, till he whacked my foot and told me to put my feet down.
Those fuckers could always dish it out but they couldn’t take if for a second.
One day I was sitting in the back row—where I belonged—and when he launched into one of his moralizing monologues, I raised my hand. He made the mistake of acknowledging me and for the next 10 minutes we went back and forth. He tried to assert virtue; I asserted that people acted solely from fear—fear of punishment, fear of pain, fear of the law, fear of justice, fear of death, fear of failure. There was nobody in the room but me and him; the rest turned their heads this way and that like they were watching a tennis match. The bell rang, and my fellow students applauded.
I figured I had licked the fucker. Still, I had to admit he had let me talk; in all my years in school up till that time I had never seen a teacher and student go back and forth like that.
I wrote another paper attacking the guy; I think it was on that damn Tale of Two Cities, with that idiot Sydney Carton—or something like that. Mr. Richards stopped me after class, and said he hoped I knew he wasn’t an idiot and that, if I wrote another paper like the last one, he would kick me out of his class.
That gave me pause. I had never heard of somebody kicking anybody out of his class before. Out of the whole school, yes, but not out of a class. Where would I go? And what for really—sticking my feet on his typewriter stand and telling the truth. But something like that could get back to my parents and there would be hell to pay.
Looked like where ever I turned, the assholes had me by the throat.